Participatory Art: Digital Tools Help Museums Connect to the Public

Filed in: Mobile, Museums, Social Media, STEM

Filed by Sarah Jackson


After Dark: Get Surreal at San Francisco's Exploratorium. Photo by Exploratorium.

5.3.11 | The passive museum—designed for visitors to wander through, looking at pictures and objects—is fast becoming a thing of the past. Cultural institutions all over the world are making use of digital technologies to connect with visitors and to make their institutions more participatory.

At the Museums and the Web conference in Philadelphia last month, museum professionals showed off their stuff. Everything from participatory games to podcast adventures were on display, including mobile experiences and web exhibitions that are almost as rich as visits to the museums themselves, if not, in some cases, even more so.

Luckily for those of us not able to be in Philadelphia, there’s much to learn online about what these institutions are up to. I enjoyed browsing through the nominees and winners of the conference’s Best of the Web Awards, which a committee of peers bestows each year to recognize outstanding work in the field. 

The work is incredibly engaging and exciting. Consider the Museum of Modern Art’s site for the exhibit Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures. Visitors to the site can create and upload their own screen test in the style of the artist. (What are you waiting for?) 

Or this site from the UK’s Tate, where visitors to the sunflower exhibit by artist Ai Weiwei recorded videos either asking the artist questions or answering one from him. Looks like they’ve collected over 21,000 videos.

The Smithsonian’s wiki for web and new media strategy was also honored. Spotlight wrote about that project here.

Rob Rothfarb, director of web development at Exploratorium in San Francisco, presented on that museum’s work using augmented reality to teach science and art. In a recent event called After Dark: Get Surreal, visitors used their mobile phones to stage their own versions of surrealist works of art—such as René Magritte’s “The Son of Man,” featuring a virtual floating bowler hat and green apple in front of a real cloud and sky background.

In a post on his blog, Rothfarb discusses some of the other conference presentations he found compelling, including The ARTours project at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which encourages visitors to interact with augmented reality art and architecture in that city, and a project from Science LinX at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands that’s using augmented reality to teach difficult science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts to teenagers.

Rothfarb writes that he was captivated by a presentation about MIGHT-y, “an exhibit and game which uses 2D markers on the faces of cubes to let visitors explore concepts about scale from the film by Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten.” Wearing AR glasses, visitors can manipulate 3-D animated objects within the cubes. It may be some time, though, before such glasses become customary:

Use of AR glasses seem new for museum exhibits and still in an early stage of application. Also, it’s expensive. The glasses used in MIGHT-y, Wrap920 video eyewear from Vuzix, are a consumer product geared toward gamers that can be adapted for use in exhibits to provide an immersive virtual reality experience. I tried a portable version of MIGHT-y with the eyeware, and although it was a bit jarring in terms of head tracking lag, it does provide a compelling augmented display. It’s encouraging to see experimentation with different forms of AR in museums.

Other topics covered at the conference include using social media and incorporating game design into exhibitions. Past papers from the Museums and the Web conference, which has been going annually since 1997, are available online.


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